Locked in Place

Locked in Place

Posted 5/4/2023


How employees view remote work, and why it’s not going away soon

By: Paul Pompeo

Unnoticed by almost everyone, an interesting trend of job resignations was occurring over a 10-year-period (2009-2019), according to Joseph Fuller and William Kerr of Harvard Business Review, who noted that the average monthly “quit rate” had increased by 0.1% every year during that time. There was a brief pause in this rise during 2020, but Fuller and Kerr observed that by 2021, when people began receiving stimulus checks and were feeling a little more confident about their options as the pandemic began to abate, the increase in resignations accelerated. At about the same time, Dr. Anthony Klotz—then associate professor at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University—crystalized this phenomenon when he coined the term “Great Resignation.” 

The lighting and electrical industry was not immune to this Great Resignation and many of our client companies were feeling its effects, especially regarding their factory personnel. Fascinated by this trend, I tracked down Prof. Klotz, who is now associate professor of organizational behavior at University College of London’s School of Management. 

Klotz has an interesting background. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma, and his first job was at General Mills in Albuquerque, NM. During our conversation, we touched on the Great Resignation, but also moved on to other very prominent issues in the employment market today—the state of remote work.

Remote work is a benefit, just like other benefits, and many people equate remote work to a 5% raise

While more of our clients are making their positions remote or at least hybrid, we do have companies from time to time that insist that the person they hire for their opening needs to be in the office five days a week. While I believe there are benefits to a work team gathered physically in one space as far as synergy, company culture and productivity, I would say many to most employees are not feeling it. Klotz provided some great insights as to how employees today review working remotely: “There’s an amazing economist at Stanford, Nicholas Bloom, who studies remote work with one of the most interesting data points. Remote work is a benefit, just like other benefits, and he found people equate remote work to a 5% raise. Essentially what’s going on [the past year or two] is bosses have been saying, ‘Come back to the office.’ [Employees view this] like a 5% pay decrease. We’ve been working remotely or in hybrid for [awhile, and] that’s more than enough time for us to have completely adjusted our lives to a new way of doing things. It’s like moving to another country—at first, it’s rocky, but then you adjust.

“Remote work gives employees more autonomy over their lives than in-person work. Not good or bad, it’s just a fact. Employees see the ‘return to the office’ request as, ‘Now that we’ve given you freedom, could you give it back, please?’ Companies have been saying, ‘It’s time to come back to the office.’ Employees are asking: ‘Why?’ Employers say it’s the culture, but employees don’t know what that exactly means. I heard somebody say, ‘If your culture only exists if everybody’s in person, either you don’t have a culture or it’s not a very strong culture.’ Part of the culture may be symbols in your office, but mostly it’s shared ways of communicating. I empathize with leaders—they’ve spent a lot of money, redesigning their offices trying to get employees to come back in, but it’s a tough sell.”

Klotz brought up a hidden danger about making your team be 100% in the office: “Most employers are learning that when you insist a position is 100% in the office for a new role, you’re going to shrink your candidate pool in ways that hinder your diversity and inclusivity. Mothers, caretakers, people of color—they may feel more comfortable spending time out of office. If you’re going to say people need to be in the office because of culture, you’ll need to define that culture. When you restrict your recruitment pool for any reason, you better make sure that reason is compelling to candidates.” 

Klotz pointed out that going remote is much more a challenge for the employeror manager, than it is the employee: “Leaders are the ones who identify most strongly with the organization because they became leaders.” Klotz told me, “The average leader feels more comfortable in the office than the lower-level worker does. They say, ‘Leadership doesn’t feel like leadership when sitting alone in front of a monitor.’ But employees say, ‘I feel better working from home: I don’t have to put up with Bill down the hall harassing me.’ You don’t have the nice office, the parking spot—you don’t have power when you go to work, and being remote just feels better.” 

Flexibility is a key component for managers dealing with in-the-office, remote and hybrid models, Klotz told me. “How flexible are we going to be when employees have those idiosyncratic needs in their lives? I think organization flexibility can be challenging to manage because of the complexities, but it will give you an advantage in the hiring market. I think that’s what companies have been trying to figure out right now—‘How far can we go?’ And admittedly, it’s much easier to talk about this as an academic versus putting it into practice.” 

The Stockdale Paradox—”You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”—Admiral James Stockdale. And this is where many leaders of lighting and electrical manufacturers, distributors, agencies and design firms are right now. I saw a post on LinkedIn while writing this column from a highly respected executive in lighting, who cited a recent study on working from the office that showed the benefits and importance of returning to work in the office. Then I looked at who gave it a thumbs up. Half the likes were from fellow leaders and executives in our industry. The other half were employees at the executive’s company, most of them reporting to her, so it could have been good “managing up.” As a side note, this respected executive recently posted an open position online, with the headline, “Can be remote!”

Full disclosure—five years ago Pompeo Group moved into a new (and much bigger) office. However, since 2020 our office is mostly empty save for the occasional meeting. As the leader of a company, is it my first preference? Not at all. Do we lose some of our company culture? Is there a synergy lost by not being together and the energy of other teammates around each other? I feel the answer is yes—everyone loses some of that working remotely. But I had to listen to what our team was saying. Studies often show the most important thing to most employees is flexibility with their job and company. I highly value our team members and so we are primarily working remotely. It’s a trade-off, but I’d say overall it is a positive one.

So many leaders of lighting companies find themselves wrestling with the same dilemma we did. Obviously, there’s no one answer that will work for every company. The question is: how will each leader respond?


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